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Gulf Coast League is the toughest in baseball

Carlos Pupo

GCL Cardinals third baseman Carlos Pupo (seated) and his family seek the shade of Florida palm trees following the Cardinals final regular season game on Monday, August 27, 2007.

Front page photo: Florida first round draft choice Matt Dominguez takes batting practice at Dolphins Stadium before joining the GCL Marlins. - Courtesy Florida Marlins, Denis Bancroft.

By Chuck King

Man it's hot. It's like Africa hot. Tarzan couldn't take this kind of hot.

- Eugene Jerome, Biloxi Blues

JUPITER, Fla. - Neil Simon’s lead character was referring to the suffocating heat endured during the Army’s World War II basic training conducted near the delta where the Mississippi River empties into the Gulf of Mexico. He could just as easily have been talking about the Gulf Coast League – the toughest league in professional baseball.

Eugene Jerome, meet Florida Marlins first round draft choice Matt Dominguez.

When Dominguez practiced with the big league club on Saturday he experienced a taste of what he hopes will be his ultimate destination, Major League Baseball. Several Marlins, however, offered Dominguez a hint as to the scorching road that serves as his starting point.

“I told them I was going to the Gulf Coast League and they all made sarcastic remarks like, Good luck with that,” Dominguez said. “They said it’s not the best league to be in.”

The GCL is Florida-based professional baseball, but it’s far from the bright lights and roaring crowds of big league ballparks.

To begin with, it’s hot. Really hot. Think of those stagnant, scorching, non-air conditioned days that follow hurricanes and multiply them by 60 games.

After a couple hours of batting, fielding, pitching and base running practice in the morning, teams hit the field at high noon for games. Dominguez and his teammates can find ways to be less hot. There is no way to stay cool.

For the players, there aren’t many places to duck the heat. A thin slab of white plastic covers the chain link dugouts, giving the bench players a modicum of relief. Some nearby structures offer a sliver of shade.

Once on the field, however, there is nowhere to hide. On the first day of the season GCL managers tell their players not to bother complaining about the heat. Two months into the season, the players have learned to ignore it. Or at least they say they have.

The two teams that have adapted best – the GCL Dodgers and the GCL Yankees – begin a best-of-three championship series tonight.

But ask any player what it’s like to play in the Gulf Coast League and they’ll likely just shake their heads. “You mean the Gulf Roast League?”

Bad Memories

“It was absolute hell,” Florida pitcher Scott Olsen recalls of his 2002 GCL season. “I wanted to quit baseball. It sucks. It is the worst setup league you could be in.”

There 16 teams are spread across Florida spring training sites, but the teams only play within their division. Teams rotate opponents, never playing the same squad on consecutive days. The clubs based in Jupiter (Marlins and Cardinals) and Port St. Lucie (Mets) don’t cross the state and don’t travel more than 100 miles north during the regular season. There are no overnight road trips.

Unlike their FSL brethren who play in the main ballpark, GCL teams are relegated to the complexes’ back fields, most of which don’t have lights – hence the day games.

“That’s a rough league there,” said Florida right fielder Jeremy Hermida, a GCL teammate of Olsen’s in 2002. “The first time you go to that league it’s kind of a wakeup call. It’s hot outside and it’s early morning, It makes you appreciate a lot more what you have up here and what you have in higher leagues.”

Originally founded as the Sun Coast League in 1964 by four clubs that wanted to place additional instructional teams in their spring training sites, the GCL doesn’t even qualify an “A,” as in Single-A, Double-A or Triple-A baseball. First and foremost, the GCL is a teaching league. It’s Rookie ball.

 Some Florida State League teams were wary the new league infringe upon their customer base.  GCL founders assuaged those fears by agreeing not to sell tickets or concessions at the game. That’s why St. Lucie was forced to scrap plans to charge admission for Pedro Martinez’s rehab start in early August.

“I thought out here would be a little different,” said Deryk Hooker, a pitcher who joined the GCL Cardinals after graduating high school in San Diego. “I thought we’d play at night. I thought we’d get fans, I thought we’d play in a stadium, not on the side fields. They are hot days and you just get toasted out there.”

That’s also why the facilities offer little comfort. Some fans huddle under umbrellas on the little league-sized bleachers. Others place beach chairs strategically in the slim, ever-moving shadows.

“The palm trees are great,” said Jerry Hedrick, whose son Nathan pitches for the GCL Mets. “You just dance your chair around, moving it with the shadow.”

Playing in conditions that haven’t changed since Lyndon Johnson’s administration, GCL players quickly realize there is only one way out of this league: play better baseball.

“I‘d rather watch them play than watch some major league clubs,” said GCL commissioner Tom Saffell, who flew 61 missions in Europe during World War II before spending four years in the major leagues with Pittsburgh and Kansas City. “These kids give you everything they have down here, even though it’s hot and even though they don’t have anybody to watch them.”

Unpredictability of Youth

At 17, Dominguez is among the youngest professional baseball players, but he’s among peers in the GCL. League rules prohibit its players 20 or older from having played more than two years of professional baseball.

The talent is raw and the lack of experience can lead to interesting plays.

GCL Marlins manager Tim Cossins has twice lost games where the final out came on attempted steals of home. He laughs about the plays now, knowing many of these mistakes will eventually shape major league ballplayers.

“It’s the first step for many of these players and you see a lot of strange things,” said Cossins with a smile. “These guys that come in together and they sweat together and they go through their first professional season together. They remember that for the rest of their lives.”

For those who sign their first professional contract the GCL can seem like a lifetime unto itself. Aside from the heat, the GCL breeds loneliness. The only people watching are usually either instructors or family.

Players perk up when parents are in the stands – and it doesn’t matter whose parents they are.

“Whenever you get anybody’s family members out there it’s great,” said GCL Marlins catcher Brett Lawler. “Just somebody you can talk to after you’re done, someone who appreciates watching you play and enjoys the game outside of your teammates.”

The homesick feeling can be even worse for the Latin players, many of whom have yet to learn English.

Frederick Parejo, a 17-year-old centerfielder for the Cardinals playing his first season away from Venezuela, spends much of his free time keeping family members up to date via emails.

“It’s difficult because they take you away from your family,” Parejo said through an interpreter. “You have to be strong to be someone in this sport.”

The Cardinals returned to the GCL this season primarily to ease the transition of their Latin players into American baseball. More than 80 percent of the Cardinals’ roster is Latin and under 21.

“It’s rookie ball,” Cardinals vice president of amateur scouting and player procurement Jeff Luhnow said. “It’s going to be crude and there’s going to be errors, but this is where the learning has to happen. In a way it’s OK that it‘s not in front of a lot of fans.”

It’s a sentiment that’s shared by Dominguez.

“There aren’t too many people who come out here, but whatever,” said Dominguez, still sweating after watching Monday’s game. “You play because you like the game, not because people will come out and want to watch.”

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